Hearts swell at the sound of a ravishing voice, a melancholy guitar, an oboe’s floating cry. Jazz riffs lead us through a maze of moods we recognize as our own perhaps for the first time. Shakespeare’s galloping horses stop in their tracks at the hearing of a captivating melody. Rock concerts with their waves and walls of sound release from pent-up bodies the deepest energies. How to explain the transformative, expressive power of music in our lives – this music we create with our own breath and our own hands?
Though music is a language without words – the ‘‘language where all language ends,’’ as Rilke has it – the impulse to explain it in words is an old and abiding one. The ancient Greeks believed that the planets produced ‘‘music of the spheres,’’ profoundly exquisite harmonies, as they revolved in their orbits. Thus, although we cannot hear these celestial sounds, our souls, attuned to harmony from birth, respond to music created on Earth. We are surrounded, inundated even, by music: ‘‘There’s music in all things, if men had ears:/Their earth is but an echo of the spheres,’’ wrote Lord Byron.
Poets in particular have been drawn to try to translate music’s spell into verbal form, perhaps because theirs is also an art in which the expressive qualities of sound and rhythm and unspoken resonances play a role.
This much is certain: music is all important to the human race. It has the power and the charm to move, disturb, sadden, gladden, bring consolation, celebration, salvation.We remember the stages of our lives by the music we heard, sang, danced to. Children’s songs we pass on from generation to generation as soothing lullabies.We work and play and love and pray to music.
‘‘Without music,’’ Frederick Nietzsche said, ‘‘life would be a mistake.’’ It would be a world without harmony, without singing and dancing – and without poetry, that legacy of the first poet-musician, Orpheus, who with his lyre, so goes the myth, first stirred the soul and bestowed upon the struggling world the sweet power of music.